This year’s Pride of New York Harvest Fest, held on November 5-6, 2011, was a terrific experience. I got to meet some amazing Upstate New York entrepreneurs, and I tasted (and purchased) some delightful food and beverages, all locally grown and made. The Harvest Fest uniquely combines “agritourism” and “locavorism,” two hot issues that are are only becoming hotter.
Agritourism is the blending of New York’s agriculture industry (aka, farms and breweries) with tourism. For the past several decades, communities have become increasingly distant from the local farmers — agritourism seeks to make the connection. “Locavorism” (I think I made up that word on the spot) is related to a “locavore” — a person who eats foods locally grown. An increasing number of consumers are very concerned that our food supply is too manufactured, micromanaged too closely and is so distant from the consumer (all the way from China, in many cases) that consumers are seeking foods and farmers who produce food here within our borders. The Pride of New York Harvest Fest is the perfect venue to bring all of us together. Every year, the festival is held at the New York State Fairgrounds in Syracuse, NY (and there is another such festival in Saratoga, NY, as well).
I wandered the building for hours, systematically visiting every booth and snapping photos or chatting with the proprietors as I wandered. I met so many people and tasted so much food that I find it difficult to highlight everyone. So I will highlight the dozen or so groups and events that stood out to me.
We arrived about noon on Saturday. The crowd was pretty good — manageable enough so that I could still pop in close to the tables and chat with a vendor or two. As it neared later in the afternoon, the building got more crowded.
This is “Grandpa” from “Grandpa’s Dippin’ Sauce.” His name is actually Mike Cisterino from Liverpool.
Mike told me that he created his barbecue sauce for his grandkids, developing a tasty condiment that actually had the entire family slathering for more. One thing led to another, and Grandpa’s Dippin Sauce was born. The sauce is GOOD. It’s got a little sweetness to it (it is grandkid approved, after all) but the sauce doesn’t leave a bitter aftertaste like some of the other Big Box sauces do. I was impressed. I have not seen Grandpa’s Dippin Sauce on my local grocery store shelves, however. Mike said that he makes and distributes the sauce with the help of Nelson Farms, a processing utility at Morrisville College. The sauce is sold there and through a few small distributors.
I wandered over to the next few booths, Primo & Mary’s Heritage Products and Semi Dolce Gourmet Soft Italian Cookie Mix. These businesses also worked out of Nelson Farms. I was intrigued, to say the least. I had never heard of Nelson Farms. Apparently, this company was helping quite a number of local producers. I did some digging when I got home, and the history and purpose of the company is extremely interesting! I’ll have more on Nelson Farms in another post.
Upstate New York has very fertile land and abundant rainfall, perfect for growing all sorts of products. Madison County was once called the “hops king” of the nation, supplying the nation with hops until a fungal blight struck the industry in the 1900s. Hops is making a comeback, too– Madison County holds a Hop Fest every year! The Finger Lakes area is wine country, supplying most of New York State’s wine. The rolling pastoral meadow lands feed countless sheep, goats and cows from which New York’s rich cheeses and butters are produced. Did you know that New York State was once the top producer of cheese in the nation, surpassing Wisconsin? Cheese was an important part of the American diet at a time when meat was reserved for large gatherings or holiday meals. Central New York between Rome and Canastota — once called the Mucklands — once supplied vast quantities of garlic, onions and potatoes in the black, swampy land. All these industries have faded in strength, but the whispers of their history remain.
The beer industry is alive and very well. We saw the now-familiar logos of FX Matt and Saranac (based in Utica) and Ommegang (based in Cooperstown) breweries, but came across a handful of others: Southern Tier Brewing Company, Empire Brewery, Middle Ages Brewing, Three Heads Brewing and more.
The oldest winery in America, Brotherhood Winery, was established in 1839 along the banks of the Hudson River Valley. Other wineries have popped up: Glenora, Lakewood, Montezuma Winery, Knapp, Dr. Frank Vinifera, The Fruit Yard, Bagley’s, Eagle Crest, Fulkerson and dozens more.
Grapes grown in New York soil are milder than grapes grown in France or California, so New York State wines — while very nice — usually don’t sell as well as the bolder and less expensive brands out of state. Fruit, however, is abundant in New York, and the wineries are nearly bursting with fruit wines of every possible combination. Montezuma Winery even sells mead (wine made from bees’ honey). My favorite fruit wine is Fruit Yard Cranberry– yum!
The artisan cheeses and butters rolling from the rural New York hills are incredibly delicious. The best butter I have ever tasted is Kriemhild Butter, produced from cows on a handful of small intergenerational family farms in Hamilton, Canastota, Peterboro and Georgetown. The product is AMAZING. The cows are grass-fed as cows should be, and the butter has a very high Omega-3 fat content with a silky smooth taste. Kriemhild Butter is processed in Canastota and has been in operation since 1909.
The cheeses overflowed the festival’s tables. The sheep cheese was the best- a wonderfully mild cheese marinated in olive oil. SO good. Other tasty delights came from Yancey’s Fancy (the steakhouse onion was great!), Muesli Fusion from Rochester, garlic from Rome Homegrown Garlic from the Williams family and based in Rome, NY, and maple products from Schoolyard Sugarbush Farm in Moravia.
And one of the more fun moments was listening to the gentleman from Saratoga Chips give his story. Did you know that potato chips were invented by a farmer in Saratoga, NY?! I was delighted! Saratoga was also the birthplace of the Peppermint Pig, so the area must have an entrepreneurial air about it.
The potato chip was invented in 1853. This is the story, taken from the Saratoga Specialties Company website at www.originalsaratogachips.com/history.htm:
A patron at Moon’s Lake House ordered fried potatoes with his meal. The diner complained that the potatoes were too thick and sent them back to the cook.
The cook at the restaurant was George Crum, who is described as Native American in some accounts and an African American in others. There is agreement, however, on Crum’s disposition—he was generally ornery. Upset that someone would criticize his cooking, Crum sliced a new batch of potatoes paper-thin, fried them in boiling oil to a crisp, and then salted them.
But what was intended as a stunt turned into an instant hit – the fussy patron and his friends loved the “crunch potato slices.” Soon the chips became known as Saratoga Chips. At first they were served in restaurants throughout the region. When George Crum left Moon’s Lake Inn to start his own restaurant called “Crumbs House,” he placed large baskets of the chips on every table. It was not long before Saratoga Chips could be found in restaurants up and down the East Coast. Soon they became known as potato chips.
Isn’t history a fascinating thing??
Unfortunately, the Saratoga Chips company closed its doors in the 1920s. But this gentleman in the photo (I didn’t get his name) decided to dust off the cobwebs and regenerate the business. He’d lost his job and was in need of money to support his family. He and his wife picked up where George Crum left off, weaving modern manufacturing and marketing with the original look and historical panache that New Yorkers just love. The company has grown to become a success, featured in the New York Times, Rachel Ray, and other notable outlets.
The chips are very good. They are not like the Big Box chips. These chips still have a bit of the potato in them with traces of moisture and flavor to them. They are also only lightly salted, a big plus in my opinion!
I think the Pride of New York Harvest Fest did its job- introducing New Yorkers to the bounties of the state.
My husband and I chatted a bit about the event, and I think it is worth mentioning here. We are entirely on the consumer end, so I’m hoping that maybe someone on the producing end can shed a little light on a question we have. Locally-grown food is almost always more expensive than other foods. Why? My husband, an amateur wine expert who has experience in the hospitality industry, said that even though many restaurants and vendors would prefer supporting New York State businesses, the cost is too high. Many times, particularly in the wine industry, better products can be found at a lower price.
Many of the businesses we visited at the festival distribute their products themselves. Even with the middle man and marketing removed from the equation, the products are still much more expensive than products from out of state or out of the country. Why is this? I believe this is the main stumbling block for consumers, in my opinion. Why buy an 8 ounce block of New York cheese for $7.50 when you can get a 16 ounce block of Wisconsin cheese for $6.00 or a 16 ounce block from China for $5? Why are local products so expensive especially when the transportation and middle man costs are lacking? I’d sure like to know. I know of a farmer 15 minutes from my home who sells grass-fed meat. I would love to feed my family such nutritious meat and support the local farmer, as well. But the meat sells for $10 a pound! I couldn’t afford to feed my large family regularly with such expensive meat. Yet I can go to Walmart and get meat for $2.50 a pound. What’s going on? I’d love to hear your input!
I do wish all our local businesses good success. I think the products are superior and I can only hope that the food industry takes a turn toward home-grown foods again. Thanks to the Pride of New York Harvest Fest for once again highlighting the best of New York State.